“Disliking” A “Liked” Book

I remarked to someone recently that the most generous description I can make about judeochristian scripture (the Torah and the so-called bible alike) says that “the only thing it’s good for is to tell you how not to be religious.” When I’m being franker, I’d add that clearly that שָּׂטָן (Satan) not יהוה (Yahweh) inspired the text (in men or otherwise), but I intend that assertion metaphorically, since neither שָּׂטָן nor יהוה factually exist to inspire anything. They merely provide pretexts for inhuman behaviour as the Zionists in Gaza demonstrate, backed up by the “Christians” in the US providing arms to Israel.

To dislike judeochristian pseudoscripture involves nothing particularly controversial. First, vast numbers of people have suffered variously at its hands. But also, there exist widely dispersed social forces that to a greater or lesser degree, and to a greater or lesser degree of quality, have exposed such writings as different varieties of bogus, dubious, forgery, fraud, or stupid. Or, at the least, people have sharply raised such questions. At the same time, the transparently political purpose—the Power grab—evinced by the texts culturally makes it easy to oppose them as well. Certainly everywhere one finds a dispute about scripture, as between the exiled Hebrews and the Samaritans (way back when) or during the convulsions of the Reformation between Catholics and various stripes of Protestantism, to point at the putative holy text and say, “No, that’s not right” already paves the way for a generalized rejection of the text.

I do not mean to say that a rejection of a text offers a correct (or incorrect) interpretation simply by virtue of saying, “No, not that text.” I mean only that when someone stands up and says, “No, not that text” about judeochristian pseudoscripture, it doesn’t automatically or only come across as some kind of weirdly idiosyncratic reaction to the text. For all that people “like” judeochristian pseudoscripture, we know there exist vast hordes who “dislike” it.

Not so with Robert Burton’s (1620)[3] Anatomy of Melancholy. For me to come off the blocks pointing and snarling, “No, not that book” will seem daffy, first because almost no one knows the book anyway, but secondly, amongst those who do such rejection will seem out of the blue.

For this blog, I feel obligated to convince you that people highly praise this Burton’s book. For instance, on the back of it, Dr Johnson (the famous literary one) recommends it unreservedly, as do other historical figures—it probably has the oldest “praise-blurbs” of any book published. But it has also at least one current champion, in Nicholas Lezard’s (2001)[4] review (of The Guardian):

Paperback not so much of the week as of the year, of the decade—or, I am inclined to say, of all time. And why? Because’ it’s the best book ever written, that’s why” (¶1).

Let’s allow that such audacious hyperbole requires backing up (Lezard does attempt it) and that such stuff will likely wind up on the back of a book as promotional text (as indeed Lezard’s remark did). Still, we might offer the Law of Book Jackets: the higher the praise the less praiseworthy the book. In which case Lezard already exposes this “best book ever written” precisely as something else.

Though not of course the worst book either. Lezard does not merely stop at his opening[5] claim, even though there remains much to take issue with even in the far more modest defence he offers for Anatomy. The passage Lezard quotes from Anatomy as an example of its pleasures, for instance, provides an overly blatant case of deck-stacking. He writes:

Burton, you suspect, felt the miseries of scholars keenly. “To say truth, ‘tis the common fortune of most scholars to be servile and poor, to complain pitifully, and lay open their wants to their respective patrons… and… for hope of gain to lie, flatter, and with hyperbolical elogiums and commendations to magnify and extol an illiterate unworthy idiot for his excellent virtues, whom they should rather, as Machiavel observes, vilify and rail at downright for his most notorious villainies and vices.” And that’s a good quote to be getting on with: it shows you that Burton is on the side of the angels, that he’s prepared to stick his neck out, and that he is funny (¶2)

Burton does indeed go on much longer than usual when he talks about the melancholy of scholars compared to other topics, and he certainly shows himself more candid, more knowledgeable, and more detailed on the matter. And why? Because he worked as a scholar—so we might hardly find this surprising. It makes Lezard’s example suspect and insufficient.

He more candidly admits, “When opened at random, it offers not only dense slabs of 17th-century prose, but insane lists that seem to go on forever, meandering digressions, whole chunks of italicised Latin” (¶1). That this serves as the mark of a “best book” seems unlikely.

More than this, Lezard insists, “The lazy browser won’t even pick this book off a shelf, let alone open it” (¶1). In point of fact, the non-lazy browser finds the demerits Lezard admits on nearly every page. He insists, “No one on earth is going to expect you to read it cover to cover” (¶3). Why not? I wonder if Joyce expects us to open Ulysses or Finnegans Wake at random or if Bely expects the same for Petersburg.

But this will seem a miscomparison (fiction versus non-fiction at the very least). I do not exaggerate to say I have often more enjoyed reading and found more rewarding reading the dictionary than Anatomy.

But let’s take Lezard’s recommendation for reading Anatomy piecemeal and randomly. I offer you a chunk, grabbed quite randomly out of (part 2) of the Gutenberg edition of Anatomy (from here):[6]

These few rules of diet he that keeps, shall surely find great ease and speedy remedy by it. It is a wonder to relate that prodigious temperance of some hermits, anchorites, and fathers of the church: he that shall but read their lives, written by Hierom, Athanasius, &c., how abstemious heathens have been in this kind, those Curii and Fabritii, those old philosophers, as Pliny records, lib. 11. Xenophon, lib. 1. de vit. Socrat. Emperors and kings, as Nicephorus relates, Eccles. hist. lib. 18. cap. 8. of Mauritius, Ludovicus Pius, &c., and that admirable example of Ludovicus Cornarus, a patrician of Venice, cannot but admire them. This have they done voluntarily and in health; what shall these private men do that are visited with sickness, and necessarily enjoined to recover, and continue their health? It is a hard thing to observe a strict diet, et qui medice vivit, misere vivit, as the saying is, quale hoc ipsum erit vivere, his si privatus fueris? as good be buried, as so much debarred of his appetite; excessit medicina malum, the physic is more troublesome than the disease, so he complained in the poet, so thou thinkest: yet he that loves himself will easily endure this little misery, to avoid a greater inconvenience; e malis minimum better do this than do worse. And as Tully holds, better be a temperate old man than a lascivious youth. ‘Tis the only sweet thing (which he adviseth) so to moderate ourselves, that we may have senectutem in juventute, et in juventute senectutem, be youthful in our old age, staid in our youth, discreet and temperate in both (Part 2, page 29)

I have no idea what this passage relates to, &c, and for my purposes here, I don’t care. I leave it to you to decide “best book ever” and “great comic novels of English” (as Burgess insists). Nor do I mean by this to impugn what Burton factually accomplishes with his book, whatever that might consist of, but only to put in context the extravagant and excessive claims for this book. A book so good you shouldn’t read it all, certainly not in order—it would seem then that Wikipedia may have surpassed Burton for the title “best book ever”.

All of this so far about Anatomy has served simply to demonstrate that people do indeed exist who—and that a discourse does exist that—extravagantly lavish praise upon this book. The fondness for it likely doesn’t approach the biblical, but I do suspect that to some extent it involves something as deeply cultural as religion and thus becomes a kind of invisible to those praising it. I mean, while we might accuse Lezard (as a journalist) simply of shilling for Capital, the praise of Johnson, Burgess, and Jung[7] for the book would seem more genuine, less disingenuous at least. For me, although I no longer remember the passage specifically, Jung’s (seemingly) favourable remarks on Burton’s text led me finally to seriously take the thing up.

But one of the first counterexamples came early on in Burton’s book. From approximately pp. 43–97, he cites a heap of grumblers—the philosopher Democritus principally amongst them that Burton has taken as his prototype—and specifically grumblers who maintain that the world teems with madmen, fools, and offers nothing but sights of absurdity. In the course of this, Burton cannot resist citing practically the entire ecclesiastical hierarchy of Catholicism top to bottom as warranting especial singling out—well done, Protestant hypocrite.[8] This hypocrisy serves as a capstone on the obnoxiousness of this passage generally. For while Burton assures us he writes of melancholy due to his own, which I can hardly object to, he attempts in this way to rationalize melancholy as the “natural” response to the world, since the world teems with idiots. Almost exactly 300 years later, Jung (1912)[9] noted:

It is hard to believe that this teeming world is too poor to provide an object for human love—it offers boundless opportunities to everyone. It is rather the inability to love which robs a person of these opportunities. The world is empty only to him who does now know how to direct his libido towards things and people, and to render them alive and beautiful. (¶253, emphasis added).

Another commentator on Anatomy declares it “a perfect volume for me: I often just read along, nod knowingly with a sardonic smile, and sigh” (from here). I don’t point to this person’s use for or reaction to the book scornfully; it simply makes me think Burton should have called his book Consolations of Melancholy rather than Anatomy of Melancholy.

It does, however, point to what makes the most recurrent and plentiful opposition to the book,[10] and that will get covered in part 2 of this.

Endnotes

[1] The full title of this 1620 book by Robert Burton runs: The Anatomy of Melancholy, What It Is: With All The Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, And Several Cures Of It. In Three Maine Partitions With Their Several Sections, Members, And Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened And Cut Up. This year, I haveset myself the task to read four or five pages of this book per day, which for its nearly 1,400 pages will put me finishing it sometime in October 2014, once I skip the indexes and footnotes that source Burton’s Latin quotations, &c. Since I cannot hope to remember with a book this large, especially one read at this pace, whatever I might write as a reply to it, I plan to collect reflections along the way, not particularly numbered or systematically, maybe sometime(s) sporadically placed online, but primarily to memorialize the reading in some way. In the scheme of temperaments— sanguine (pleasure-seeking and sociable), choleric (ambitious and leader-like), phlegmatic (relaxed and thoughtful), and melancholic (analytical and literal)—I fall into the last category. These days, melancholy gets abused as a synonym for depression, but it more arises from self-reflection.

Meanwhile, if you’ve read this already in my other book replies, you can skip it. Otherwise: two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about. Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

[2] Burton, R. (1620). The anatomy of melancholy, what it is: with all the kinds, causes, symptomes, prognostickes, and several cures of it. in three maine partitions with their several sections, members, and subsections. philosophically, medicinally, historically, opened and cut up . New York: New York Review of Books.

[3] Burton, R. (1620). The anatomy of melancholy, what it is: with all the kinds, causes, symptomes, prognostickes, and several cures of it. in three maine partitions with their several sections, members, and subsections. philosophically, medicinally, historically, opened and cut up . New York: New York Review of Books.

[4] Lezard, N. (2001, 17 August). The book to end all books. Accessed 23 May 2014 from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/aug/18/history.philosophy

[5] I will simply declare this claim “indefensible”.

[6] Check out the surrounding passage if you want to see its wider context, or lack of it.

[7] Jung does not expatiate on the literary merits of the book.

[8] This marks by no means the only or even the most egregious case of Burton’s religious hypocrisy.

[9] Jung, C. G. (1962). Symbols of transformation: an analysis of the prelude to a case of schizophrenia. New York: Harper.

[10] A book this long can hardly escape offering a variety of experiences to readers. I might lack sufficient Englishness to register any intentional humour in Burton; at most, I would find his humour generally unintentional. One finds funny passages of course—funny, I mean, without resorting to the sardonic or the sarcastic, which do not warrant the term “humour” as I would see it. One may laugh plentifully at the absurd non-proportions of the book, &c., but in general, the experience of reading it tends to be like slogging through swamp-muck only to finally come across a flower, whose delightful scent remains or gets poisoned by the atmosphere surrounding it. Imagine the delicate experience of whiffing a daisy in a cow pie if my imagery didn’t evoke enough yet. I congratulate myself as someone willing to slog through big books and all without feeling a sense of time wasted, but this book readily convinces me I could spend my time better in some other way—again, perhaps, reading the dictionary.

Disclaimer

I want you to understand something. I wrote this for you. I wrote this for you and only you, even though I don’t know you or don’t know you’re looking. Everyone else who reads it, that’s their own affair. They may think they get it, and they do or don’t. You were meant to read these words.

Summary (the TLDR Version)

Politeness is racist. And the fact that that might sounds totally wrong to you is why TLDR versions shouldn’t be relied upon.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Terry Eagleton’s (1984)[2] The Function of Criticism

I read this at the same time as J.M. Ellis’s (1984)[3] Against Deconstruction (reply here) and they in several fruitful ways informed one another. One of the most specific involved Eagleton’s own dismantling of deconstruction. But unlike Ellis’ text, this slim little volume has much wider ambition than to expose a whilom fashionable mode of literary criticism.[4]

For Eagleton’s book specifically, he sets out to track the rise of “public sphere”—to engage and rework Habermas’ own work on the matter—in an English context. And he does so in order to show how and in what way criticism arose originally in opposition to the State (as the middle class in particular sought to rise to power) and has since gone on to become a decorous irrelevancy for the most part, with the exception of Raymond Williams’ work—at least, Eagleton certainly extols Williams as uniquely dogged and visionary in keeping a steady keel over the course of shifting histories. Eagleton makes me want to read Williams.

The concept of the rise of the public sphere—written in 1984, before the mass Internet—has an especial relevance now. The public sphere of criticism, which originally made no bones about an “amateur” status that ranged over every topic conceivable, took the form of polite discourse in journals. In principal, anyone might participate in the discussion, and some of the crankier folks at the time could lament that tinkers, cobblers, and the like might hold forth an opinion as if everyone ought to pay attention to it (as opposed to only those duly appointed by time, history, or station as an exponent of any view). The overarching rule or criterion centred around politeness, if not gentility (since that quality got associated more often with aristocracy, it seems).

In this public project, which involved (implicitly) taste, judgment, and the like, we can see exactly the formation of a milieu or an environment where so-called common-sense and reason come to be equated; in other words, we see an emerging identity of reason per se and the reasonable. The unreasonable, therefore, becomes also the irrational.

Of course, while this articulation of the public sphere in principal could admit anyone (capable of behaving properly, i.e., politely), in practice it necessarily excludes vast swaths of people. Eagleton doesn’t make an enormous point about this, because it makes a commonplace: all venues implicated in social voicing necessarily (whether consciously or not) disallows certain participations and participants. All the same, this particular public sphere offers something of an anomaly because it takes as a central principle that anyone might participate, if only they go along with the rule of politeness.[5]

The particular “offense” of this does not arise from any supposedly “universal” human habit of excluding certain people from access to power—although we may object to this, and should—but in the fact that it imputes a failure of politeness to any who do not show up to participate. Since any may participate, for those who do not or those who fail to do so in a way deemed appropriate, the discourse presumes certain qualities or characteristics about them (i.e., primitive, uncivilized, irrational, &c). Rather than understanding the criterion for inclusion (in this case, “politeness”) as an imposed criterion and instead seeing “possession” of that capacity in those who can or cannot participate, this appears to shift “responsibility” to the primitive. Where previously closed circles of power unabashedly asserted your lack of a right to participate (or set up very strict means by which you could obtain access to power), here the responsibility for forming and maintaining “how one joins” gets left (in theory) to those who would seek to participate. And this, I suggest, because the middle class discourse had to emerge, more or less ex nihilo, and in the face of the existing discourses of authority. The Protestant Reformation played an enormous role in this sort of emergent authorizing.

Nonetheless, one can still point (as I believe Eagleton does to some extent) to a sort of incoherence at the centre of this sort of public sphere, and thus all of the downstream forms of criticism that emerged. In the specific history of it, a specialization finally emerges (generally after the twentieth century) and this coincides with the co-optation of the function of criticism itself by capitalism, so that the socially transformative force it represented originally (however demographically limited) safely disappears into the Academy.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve given up on that book. It doesn’t reward my reading.

[2] Eagleton, T. (1984). The function of criticism: from “the spectator” to post-structuralism: London: Verso, pp. 1–133.

[3] Ellis, J. M. (1989). Against deconstruction: Princeton University Press Princeton, pp. 1–168.

[4] For this and Ellis alike, I should probably write further reflections on these books, because I read both too long ago to now remember what specific points I wished to make or draw upon. Now, I have only left the “warm glow” of residual memory, which probably has more scope to it than any narrower or more local comments I might have made.

[5] The monstrousness of US-Zionist policy in Palestine, recently once again in the news in such an ugly way, does not arise from the supposedly universal human/historical fact that different peoples (in this case the supposed Israelites) have since forever at times invaded neighbors or people far away, stolen their land, and exterminated them. We can and should object to any normalization of this supposedly “universal” human behavior. But that does not undergird the current situation, because in this case we have a people using their own genocide as an excuse for committing genocide with the backing of a country that holds up freedom and self-determination as ultimate values.

A Taste for Vanilla

10 August 2014

Disclaimer

I want you to understand something. I wrote this for you. I wrote this for you and only you, even when I don’t know you or don’t know you’re looking. Everyone else who reads it, that’s their own affair. They may think they get it, and they do or don’t. You were meant to read these words.

A Taste For Vanilla

In tracing part of the evolution of the word “vanilla” from simply a flavour to something meaning “plain” or “boring” (often in a sexual context), Murrell-Harvey (2014)[1] points to its history of use in the increasing (cultural) visibility LGBT community of the 1970s:

The continuing openness of the LGBT community [then] not only brought about the need for different cultural and political events, but also created a new social scene. As it was noted earlier, there is a text sample of vanilla being used to describe a gay bar that is not SM (Rodgers, 184).[2] SM refers to “sado-masochism, a combination of the words sadism, meaning to take pleasure in inflicting pain on others, and masochism, to take pleasure in pain inflicted on you,” as an eloquent entry on Urban Dictionary puts it. Wayne Dynes also uses vanilla in a similar fashion in Homolexis when describing SM aficionados who “dismiss gays of simpler tastes as mere fluffs, who limit themselves to timid exercises in vanilla sex” (Dynes, 123).[3] The LGBT community uses the standardized meaning of vanilla to describe sex or gathering places as plain or boring. One of the many possible reasons the LGBT community probably used vanilla as their choice description is because it seemed innocent. The homosexual community was already, and continues, to face much hostility from general society. Why would they use a descriptive word that would only draw more negative attention to their personal lives? Also, vanilla was and is probably used amongst the LGBT community because it had already been standardized by American society. As it was discussed earlier, people began to standardize vanilla to mean plain or boring since before the 1940’s. It would only make sense for the LGBT community to use a descriptive word that is already common amongst the society they are attempting to be equal members of (¶7).

Murrell-Harvey cites a usage of “plain vanilla” in a headline from Life Magazine in 1942 (“Willkie Evolves a Plain Vanilla Foreign Policy for Republicans”) from which it “can be inferred that vanilla began to shift from a description of an actual flavour to something meaning plain or boring before the 1940s” (¶4). Yes, though I would propose that the sense here may not point yet to rather than “plain or boring” but only “with nothing added in”—a sense which informs the gay subculture usage later for vanilla sex and which, as a phrase used by S&M adepts, might well have evolved into meaning later “plain” or “boring” sex explicitly.

I less intend to start a debate over the merits of this proposed middle step between “flavour” and “plain or boring” than to extend Murrell-Harvey’s insight further by asking (or trying to intuit) why a food metaphor like “vanilla” got marshalled into making this distinction at all. As others have shown in the domain of adoption criticism, food metaphors applied to people (in this case children) become highly problematic; for example, from a Twitter bio, we have “adoptive vanilla mama to handsome chocolate son” (see here, plus the relevant comments). Murrell-Harvey also cites an instance of a sorority sister saying, “Vanilla men are alright, but I think you need some chocolate in your life” (¶1).

I can’t convince myself that no racialized overtones whatsoever cling to in these (sexualized) senses of vanilla—especially with the sorority sister example—but where a food metaphor gets invoked, it seems likely at least at first glance to suggest something desirable, something one would want to eat or, more metaphorically, to consume as consumers. This sense seems indisputable where would-be adopters refer to cinnamon or chocolate babies, &c., and not always (unfortunately) without the sexual overtones, as any number of transracially adopted girls attest. Even without this, resonance here with the “I’m-going-to-eat-you-up” of Hansel and Gretel sounds loudly and clearly, s also any memory one might have of the relative who pinches your cheek and declares, “You look good enough to eat.”

Of course, a use of a food metaphor may attempt to generate disgust, as Huxley does in the opening of his (1932)[4] Brave New World:

Wintriness responded to wintriness. The overalls of the workers were white, their hands gloved with a pale corpse-coloured rubber. The light was frozen, dead, a ghost. Only from the yellow barrels of the microscopes did it borrow a certain rich and living substance, lying along the polished tubes like butter, streak after luscious streak in a long recession down the work tables (1).

From Lopez (1998):[5]

This paragraph does not feature the only repulsive use of food and drink in Brave New World. Discussing how excised ova are preserved after extraction, the Director of Hatcheries “referred to the liquor in which the detached and ripened eggs were kept; and, leading his charges to the work tables, actually showed them how this liquor was drawn off from the test-tubes” (3). The use and repetition of “liquor” here almost reflexively invites the reader to have a glass of ripened and detached ova in saline (with probable gag results), but that again does not efface the fertility of the image, if the pun will be excused. And, after the main course of butter and goose-flesh, apparently washed down with eggnog, Huxley then serves us a “warm bouillon containing free-swimming spermatozoa–at a minimum concentration of one hundred thousand per cubic centimetre” (4). I suspect that the word “warm” lends this description its effectiveness more than the concentrated thickness of the bouillon itself; again, though, the inadvertently positive link here between eating (food) and life-renewal is obvious.

This all takes some untangling then.

If we could identify some cultural space where chocolate invokes disgust rather than appetite, then this would strengthen the (negatively) racialized sense of the vanilla/chocolate food metaphor cited above. In general, however, this seems more an exoticising (i.e., Orientalist) racial sense of chocolate. Here, it seems not only less “something added in” and also exactly the opposite of something “boring” or “plain, but rather (and precisely) something exotic.

Of course, if we want conventional sense of chocolate as “disgusting” (or erotic) then this takes us immediately into the world of scat, and one may thank Pynchon in his (1973)[6] Gravity’s Rainbow for drawing out an example of the racialized element this may convey:

Now her intestines whine softly, and she feels shit begin to slide down and out. He kneels with his arms up holing the rich cape. A dark turd appears out the crevice, out of the absolute darkness between her white buttocks. He spreads his knees, awkwardly, until he can feel the leather of her boots. He leans forward to surround the hot turd with his lips, sucking on it tenderly, licking along its lower side … he is thinking, he’s sorry, he can’t help it, thinking of a Negro’s penis, yes he knows it abrogates part of the conditions set, but it will not be dined, the image of a brute African who will make him behave (235–6).

As with similar passages in de Sade, or in various trivializing commentaries on Pasolini’s (1975)[7] Salò, usually a certain amount of scrambling results from those seeking safe high ground even to acknowledge they’ve acknowledged a passage like this. Murnighan (2001)[8] presents it as one of a spectacle of excerpts; Wilson (2002)[9] wraps it up as “imagining disgust” in the domain of psychology (Moore’s (1990)[10] Dark Eros keeps and admirably level head about it, avoiding the term “disgust”); the Internet refers to the scene as “hilarious” or “also sad as fuck” without admitting the possibility of its eroticism (intended by Pynchon or not), &c.

Let’s admit, rather, some people have a taste for it (de gustibus) and try to focus on more salient matters—much of the shit we eat under the guise of food anyway (e.g., McDonald’s) may prove worse than shit itself anyway. Moreover, Canetti (1960)[11] suggested that the celebrated German paranoiac Daniel Schreber put on public display in his (1903)[12] Memoirs of My Nervous Illness—perhaps precisely through the only allowable channel of a publication about his insanity—an authentic slice of the (dominant) German national psyche, in its depiction of Schreber’s fear and loathing for Catholics, Poles (Slavs) and Jews.[13] If so, we might say similarly that Pynchon puts forth—and similarly through the only allowable channel for it, a fictional novel about World War II—an authentic slice of the dominating (white) US national psyche.

All of this serves to contextualize the complicated mess of food metaphors, sexuality, and exoticising and condemnatory commentary on the same. It also, I think, helps to point away from a strictly racialised sense of the word as it came into use with SM adepts in the 1970s.

I do not mean by this, of course, that no racism prevailed then. I’ve not studied the matter, but it would surprise me to learn that the dominating racial patterns in the US at the time did not scale themselves down to the LGBT communities then as well. I simply mean to suggest that if we would ferret out where “vanilla” comes into parlance (amongst mostly “vanilla” skinned folks anyway), then racialised discourses may play a secondary role.

As Murrell-Harvey notes, a curious feature of “vanilla” (and her own article seems to fall gently prey to this as well) involves the conflation of the flavour with the ice cream associated with it—so that the not-white colour of the vanilla pod and the bean themselves disappears from consciousness—an unpleasantly apt metaphor. Going back to the “nothing added in” sense of vanilla, the lesser popularity of (and even the need to specifically articulate the distinction of) vanilla bean ice cream, with its innumerable black specks in the otherwise uninterrupted field of white, points to the resistance to anything added in one might encounter. This echoes Camille Paglia’s remark about menstrual blood in her (1990)[14] Sexual Personae,

It is not menstrual blood per se which disturbs the imagination—unstanchable as that red flood may be—but rather the albumen in the blood, the uterine shreds, placental jellyfish of the female sea (11).

And this evokes, even more generally, the terrors of miscegenation, the myths and fetishes surrounding the one-drop rule, and the radical denials of genetic realities that comprise all “white” people as white—once again, the unpleasant metaphor that bleeds out the colour of the seed pod and beans to pretend that the essence (the flavour) of it constitutes a refinement of the thing itself apart from some original not-whiteness. And if commercially available vanilla extracts can restore something of the original colour, now might serve as a good time to dig even more deeply etymologically and remember that the term vanilla links also to the genocide of the Americas and patriarchal sexism:

1660s, “pod of the vanilla plant,” from Spanish vainilla “vanilla plant,” literally “little pod,” diminutive of vaina “sheath,” from Latin vagina “sheath of an ear of grain, hull of a plant” (see vagina). So called from the shape of the pods. European discovery 1521 by Hernando Cortes’ soldiers on reconnaissance in southeastern Mexico (from here).

The relationship of this to European conquistadors amongst indigenous American people makes the racist note sound plainly enough, but to make a lot of hay about sexism seems too far off topic, i.e., remains so deeply buried in the archaeology of Occidental discourse that it seems to have become invisible here.[15] If I did want to try to find a connection to the 1970s sense of vanilla, I’d look at whether the term arose or had more social cache amongst the male-only subcultures of homosexuality at the time, i.e., if it did not get articulated first amongst lesbians. I might also wonder if the conventionally hypermasculinised character of much of the “leather scene” at the time didn’t betray its links to the homosocial hypermasculinity of conquistadors[16] (or soldiers, more generally), &c. For now, if I call these links tenuous I do not mean to dismiss them as trivial.

And I underscore all of this in any case mostly to point to a piece of something like bad faith, or at least an inconsistency at work when one tries to make a vanilla/chocolate/cinnamon and white/black/brown analogy. This doesn’t mean we don’t now encounter or receive “vanilla” as “white”[17] but that we needn’t simply rehearse this conflation while remaining ignorant of it.

If, however, we do adopt this equation, it might become tempting to locate the distinction that the SM adepts of the 1970s noted between themselves and practitioners of vanilla sex in their frequently visible black leather gear. In this case, vanilla sex would involve the “nothing added in” of naked (admittedly albanocentric) white sex. I don’t think this amounts to a very convincing equation, unless somehow all body hair gets moved onto the SM side of the equation and Twinkies ( much more overt and obvious food metaphor) get left on the other.

Meanwhile, perhaps readers will bear with me if I find fruitless (pun not intended) the attempt to locate the emergent use of vanilla in the LGBT community of the 1970s in any “flavour of vanilla” sense. It seems entertaining to imagine that if anything in a sexual sense might attach to “vanilla” as a “flavour,” then the best candidate seems semen. A prevalence for the use of the word “cream” as slang for semen might couple as well with the use attested since 1929 of “to beat, thrash, or wreck”. Cream in general gives us:

early 14c., creyme, from Old French cresme (13c., Modern French crème) “chrism, holy oil,” blend of Late Latin chrisma “ointment” (from Greek khrisma “unguent;” see chrism) and Late Latin cramum “cream,” which is perhaps from Gaulish. Replaced Old English ream. Re-borrowed 19c. from French as creme. Figurative sense of “most excellent element or part” is from 1580s. Cream-cheese is from 1580s.

which certainly makes the slang use fun, with iced cream specifically attested since 1744.

However, none of this seems especially to land us anywhere near to vanilla (or cream) as a flavour and most semen (except from dead or absent donors) tends to arrive at a temperature well-above frozen.[18] Also, simply to speak frankly, it seems more wishful thinking than any sufficiently widespread enough experience amongst semen-imbibers that they collectively could or would liken the many flavours of semen only (or first) in terms of vanilla (whether the extract, credited to chemist Joseph Burnett in 1847, or the ice cream). Having said this, one might still note the actual range of colours that vanilla ice cream exhibits—certainly almost never a totally pure white, specifically due to many of its additives—and this colour range at least also analogizes to the colour range of semen, if only accidentally. Someone alerted me also that vanilla extract now comes in two colours: the traditional brown but also a clear colour. The overarching irony then hinges on the fact that vanilla itself becomes “something added in” with all of its resultant colour variations. The unpleasant aptness of the metaphor continues apace.

Meanwhile, this apparent cul-de-sac into “flavour” may actually point to the way out. If we imagine sex conceived and judged as a matter of “taste,” then the metaphor that turns literal vanilla taste into figurative sexual taste might finally (and convincingly) link the usage. We could point then also to the panoply of other food-related phrases: a taste for Twinkies, Oreos, Bananas, Coconuts, Rice, &c.[19] Obviously, once someone makes the original equation, others will articulate further details and examples of it, and from that point then, to have any taste may come to mean having bad taste and/or boring taste or common taste, as the phrase “white bread” also attests.

At this point, while the mystery seems mostly unravelled,[20] it remains as yet unclear why the LGBT community specifically provided the vanguard for this usage in the 1970s. More precisely, at this point in on Murrell-Harvey’s (2014) research, it seems this usage became visible to culture more generally via the LGBT community in the 1970s. This involves not merely greater LGBT vocalness and visibility in the 1970s but also an increase of print publication, which leaves behind the traces Murrell-Harvey can recover. One might wonder whether the heterosexual BDSM communities of yore ever adopted the usage. It seems an adorable irony that a quick check of Sacher-Masoch’s (1870)[21] Venus in Furs (available here; the link starts a PDF download) contains the word “vanilla” but only in the front matter of the linked PDF, which announces “**Welcome To The World of Free Plain Vanilla Electronic Texts**”.

To hazard an answer why, I will go out on a limb and say that the gesture of cultural appropriation typically requires a cultural Other first to give voice to or to express an interdicted or taboo social form, one either actually unknown to the culture at large or one that (like BDSM) remain shrouded in silence. This appropriation may happen directly (like white kids and hip-hop these days) or indirectly (like white kids and the Rolling Stones in the 1960s), but the salient gesture involves the cultural performance of that which otherwise gets deemed unperformble.

In the present case, though Kraft-Ebbing and others had documented in various ways various paraphilias and “sexual deviations,” the psychiatric category this proposes renders the practitioner of such deviations as safely identified, contained, and delimited; the term “pervert” here serves to function as an apotropaic ward.[22]

To make this point more broadly, one might recall how the Jivaro people of South America would raze a neighbouring village in order to obtain a tsantsa, or shrunken head. This powerful ritual object required binding and all sorts of magic to keep it from destroying the village that made it, but this underscores the original insufficiency of the village itself, insofar as the villagers must acquire such an object from outside of it in the first place. Bringing the dangerous thing into one’s environment involves all kinds of requirements, and so acknowledging the “pervert” as a psychiatric category similarly invokes this sort of “binding magic”. Sometimes (and still to this day), such binding took the very literal form of restraints in psychiatric wards, but “banishing” the “pervert” into the temenos (into a sacred circle or “cell”) of the diagnostic category of “crazy” also affects this binding and thus delimits the extent that the “pervert” can affect society. Similarly, one might find the “permitted nigger” in a sundown town—an African-American who does not actually get run out of town at sunfall—or one might point to the openly gay character in the otherwise totalitarian and anti-gay world of Moore’s (1989)[23] V For Vendetta. These “exceptions” prove the rule, of course, precisely (I would say) because they remain “contained” within the cultural constraints that view and bind them.

Those not so contained pay the price, of course. BDSM, as a part of Occidental culture generally, could only take cognizance of it seriously—and not simply as a psychiatric category—when first given cultural voice and when first expressed by a punishable Other. I do not ignore that culture generally already viewed homosexuality as psychiatrically pathological. Most assuredly, the homosexual got shunted into the category of “pervert” along with all other sexual non-conformists. An (or but) the very era of greater visibility under consideration also points to a time when the subaltern began speaking—having its own printing press and getting its own message out. Or, to add a touch more historical accuracy, the incorporation of the homosexual voice (literally transcribed) into psychiatric literature provided some of the first “framing” of this subaltern voice. Admittedly, a merely well-intentioned framing at the best, that still took as a premise the mental illness of the condition, but a voice viewed (at least in ideal cases) compassionately. Less widely read, of course, were various texts that made pleas for compassion, like Radclyffe Hall’s (1928)[24] The Well of Loneliness.

Not simply the greater militancy of the push-back from the LGBT community in the 1970s against this psychiatric designation—which led, of course, in 1973 to the removal of the diagnosis of homosexuality as a mental disorder—but the increased textuality of the discourse helped to put the denunciation of “vanilla sex” more in the public eye. In feminist (and lesbian) circles of the era, the issue of BDSM remained extremely controversial to the extent that “submission” itself seemed already one of the key cultural tropes or demands that feminism felt it ought to banish forever. Women who sought (to control) that kind of experience often found themselves attacked as traitors or backsliders.

The problem of lesbian invisibility, however, may have left the main currents of this debate less in the public eye than the images of leather-clad “macho” homosexuals. If drag queen had previously provided the “ambassador image” for what homosexuality “is” (never mind all of the problematics this brings with it), then “leather queens” similarly got turned into a kind of alternative to sexuality—specifically, non-vanilla sexuality—even as they remained within the interdicted zone of the “homosexual” generally.

Again, cultural appropriation proceeds from an interdicted Other first performing it—even if culture also punishes them for it (up to and including violent reprisals and death). By definition, such an Other reads as “uppity” to the dominating culture, and (only) political organisation will tend to keep the main blandishments of violence at bay—though not always, as white reactions to Civil Rights events caught on TV many times.

The interdicted Other models an otherwise cultural impossibility or impossible culturality. In the case of non-vanilla sex, modelled by SM adepts (both lesbian and homosexual in the 1970s), this modelling comes with the assertion of its legitimacy. It does not accept the dominating discourse’s definition, which in this case involved (1) a designation of psychiatric but also (2) a designation as abnormal by other LGBT members. The existence of this distinction seems critical, just as Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X (to pick just the most culturally acknowledged figures) made clear as well.

On this view, we would not expect (the heterosexual) Sacher-Masoch to challenge the dominating norm of culture. Once he “forces” dominating culture to take note of him, he gets consigned to the apotropaic ward—“ward” functions nicely as a pun here—of “pervert” and needs say no more about it. He does not serve as a modeller of interdicted Otherness, although his book might have inspired some to become such modellers.

Part of what I want to express here involves pointing to the debt of gratitude owed by the sorority sister who can refer to something as an alternative to otherwise vanilla sex. The existence of that distinction hinges particular on the anger and exposure risked by interdicted Others, who found themselves beleaguered not only by official bodies and psychiatrist, who wanted to condemn them as dangerous or crazy, but also by other LGBT people, who nervously at times distanced themselves in order to take on more of an assimilated (or assimilable) appearance. Under the pressure of the demand to conform (to assimilate), the “main body” of the LGBT community has jettisoned some of its “problematic members” (most pointedly NAMBLA from its national conferences), but also the BDSM community, &c., except that that community organised and pushed back.

This oversimplifies things for brevity, of course, but it doesn’t erase the cultural debt of gratitude owed for the emergence of the distinction afforded by the term “vanilla” sex. “Non-vanilla sex” denotes an always already fact of Occidental culture, even when that culture (1) pretends it does not exist, or (2) acknowledges it exists only in culturally denigrated forms (as “perversions” or “non-conformisms” &c). This suggests that the emergence of the term “vanilla” as pointing to “boring” or “conventional” sex does indeed have an increased chance of appearing precisely at a social locus where an interdicted Other (in this case S&M adepts in the 1970s) begins unabashedly or openly performing the “secret desire” (so to speak) of the dominating culture. One may call this a secret desire, because otherwise culture would not generally appropriate it, but would, rather, further interdict it by pathologising it, criminalising it, &c.

Let us not lose sight, however, that the secret desire here remains, not for homosexuality, but for non-vanilla sex—just as white kids appropriating Motown or hip-hop desire the “authenticity” of that music without desiring the “Blackness” out of which it necessarily originates. Somewhere down the road, perhaps, this appropriation might form one bollard at the end of a bridge that human rights activists (from the side of Black or homosexual America) might build toward, but in itself this appropriation does not challenge the delimitations and enclosures that surround the interdicted Other.

Endnotes

[1] Murrell-Harvey, C. (2014). Vanilla. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 8. http://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/vanilla.pdf

[2] Rodgers, Bruce. The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon. N.p.: Straight Arrow Books, 1972. 100-84. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

[3] Dynes, WR (1985). Homolexis: a historical and cultural lexicon of homosexuality. New York.: Gay Academic Union

[4] Huxley, A. (1989). Brave new world. New York: HarperPerennial.

[5] Lopez, MR (1998). Two modern utopias: a comparative study of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Stanislaw Lem’s Return from the Stars. Unpublished Thesis. Antioch University. From here

[6] Pynchon, T. (2006). Gravity’s rainbow. New York: Penguin Books.

[7] Pasolini, Pier Paolo, Citti, Sergio., Grimaldi, Alberto., Bonacelli, Paolo,, Cataldi, Giorgio., Quintavalle, Umberto P., Delli Colli, Tonino., Baragli, Nino., Morigi, Tatiana Casini., Ocone, Enzo., Morricone, Ennio., Ferretti, Dante, Sade. (Eds.) (1998) Salò, o, The 120 days of Sodom = Salò : o, Le 120 giornate di Sodoma [Irvington, N.Y.] : Criterion Collection,

[8] Murnighan, J. (2001). The naughty bits: the steamiest and most scandalous sex scenes from the world’s great books. New York: Three Rivers Press.

[9] Wilson, RR. (2002) The hydra’s tale :imagining disgust Edmonton: University of Alberta Press,

[10] Moore, T. (1990) Dark eros :the imagination of sadism Dallas, TX: Spring Publications

[11] Canetti, E. (1981). Crowds and Power (trans. Carol Stewart), 6th printing. New York: NY: Noonday Press.

[12] Schreber, DP (1955). Memoirs of my nervous illness (trans. I MacAlpine & RA Hunter). London: W. Dawson.

[13] I must confess a confusion, for when Canetti writes: “we have already seen the ‘later champion,’ not named by him, who experienced Catholics, Jews, and Slavs as hostile crowds in the same personal manner as he did, hating them for their very existence and ascribing to them the marked urge to increase inherent in all crowds” (Canetti, 447, emphasis added). The allusion to Hitler and his ilk stands clearly enough, but the phrase “not named by him” not so much, since Daniel Schreber died in an asylum in 1911 and could not have “named him” if he’d wanted to.

[14] Paglia, C. (1991). Sexual personae: art and decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books.

[15] More on this:

Latin “vagina” and Spanish “vaina” both mean “sheath” (scabbard). The vanilla bean pod is a hollow cylindrical container analogous to a sheath, hence the name. Anatomical terminology is often derived from analogies to instruments, implements, tools, and utensils: German “Kopf” (head) originally meant “cup;” the archaic English “brain pan” means “skull;” Latin “pelvis” means “basin,” Latin “tibia” means “flute,” and Latin “vomer,” which originally meant “plow,” was transferred to the penis. While this article makes too much of the connection between “vagina” and “vanilla,” it could have established a sexual connection by pointing out that the genus Vanilla is part of the family of orchids, and that “orchid” is from the Greek “orchis” (testicle) because of the shape of its bulb (from here, in the comments)

[16] Also this (though I’m not so sanguine about not changing the past):

Vanilla’s bland reputation is mostly due to diluted extracts or (ugh!) artificial flavor. Real vanilla, flecks of the pod and seeds in cookies, cake, ice cream or, dare I say, added to chocolate? Taking the broad perspective, a brown/white argument could be made for most tropical/new world products coveted by colonial powers: chocolate, coffee, spices, tea, tobacco, bananas…. But are we tainting the product with politics? We can’t change the past, only the future (from here, in the comments).

As for the past being the past: as Jung (1958)* notes: “The psychic catastrophes caused by the mental inertia of ‘experts’ do not appear in any statistics, and from this it is concluded that they are non-existent” (¶673).

*Jung, CG (1978). Flying saucers: a modern myth of things seen in the skies (trans. RFC Hull). Princeton: Princeton University Press

[17] e.g., “Meaning ‘conventional, of ordinary sexual preferences’ is 1970s, from notion of whiteness and the common choice of vanilla ice cream” (from here)

[18] Here again, a desire that “nothing be mixed in” connects in manifold biological, epidemiological, and racially genetic ways.

[19] I chose the terms here to deliberately keep their “racist” (or racialised) implications intact.

[20] I’d welcome input, amplification, and counterproposals from others. In particular, it seems one could seek additional confirmation by ferreting out analogous matters of taste from or in other linguistic or historical domains. &c.

[21] Sacher-Masoch, L. (2000). Venus in furs (trans J. Neugroschel). New York: Penguin Books.

[22] Shades of Paglia (1991) again here; see note 14.

[23] Moore, A., Lloyd, D., Whitaker, S., & Dodds, S. (1989). V for vendetta. New York: DC Comics.

[24] Hall, R. (1990). The well of loneliness. 1st Anchor Books ed. New York: Anchor Books.

I received my original birth certificate today, which confirmed one of my better guesses (based on genetic testing and genealogical research) about the identity of my genetic mother. However, as I had been forewarned would likely be the case, the document contained no information about my father, since (as in many states) birth certificates in Washington contain no information about the genetic father when the couple is not married.*

Presumably this sort of state of affairs exists because the patriarchy of the nation-state (to say nothing of political entities that pre-existed the nation-state) will require no male (unless married) to have to take responsibility for a child strictly on the word of a woman. It’s as if a tacit “women are sluts” premise creates and very doggedly protects a presumption of “reasonable doubt” and “innocence” where paternity is concerned.**

For people who were adopted (and for people in general with regard to the place, i.e., the womb, of their origin), this “epistemological barrier” throws an almost overwhelming emphasis on the mother. One can say, whether for better or for worse, birth is virtually only an affair of the mother and it would seem patriarchy has leveraged this fact to write fathers almost entirely out of the picture.

Certainly, in the bogus “triad” of adoption (which obliterates the “fourth” presence of the child itself), we should speak instead of an unholy pentacle: two genetic parents, two adoptive parents (to whatever extent these individuals are present to the event) and one human trafficker who mediates between these two devilish horns.

Whether we imagine the genetic mother as a dupe (innocent or not) of the adoption pentad or as a cold-blooded mercenary who recognises the value-added she can extract from her eggs and womb, the genetic father seems precisely the “(none named)” I find on my original birth certificate. But even when we construct the genetic mother as a victim of adoption, this strikes me as anti-feminist and paternalistic—it makes the mother pitiably culpable in a situation where abstract “forces” have taken advantage of her, even though those forces do, in fact, have some male name somewhere. Meanwhile, and more often, the orphaned seem to principally direct their animus at this “abandoning” (or “pitiful”) woman and would most often demand of her—not of their father—“why did you give me up?” (or, if not quite anything quite so strident, then a less dramatic inquiry about one’s natal origin). We expect “her” and not “them” to bear the full burden of providing an explanation.

But maybe I have the wrong impression; maybe orphans in fact do often express tremendous animus towards the “dick” responsible for their existence. But if by all of this I seem to suggest that any notion of “source” should shift its locus from a “maternal” to a “parental” emphasis, I do not intend by this to impugn the work and the fact of child-bearing that the mother does. If I would increase the “paternal” presence in the “parental,” I do so to increase the weight of responsibility on the genetic father’s part, which currently seems deliberately too lightened by long use, tradition, and the law.

Prior to genetic testing, the only responsibility demanded of men devolved to those children duly sponsored by marriage, whether procreated or accepted legally by adoption. Outside of that, the sexism of patriarchy permits us to harangue mom for being a damn slut, as if she alone (and not her and some male) were “at fault”. Clearly this is a “law” written by and operating in favour of males, and it shows itself in the adoption discourse and world in the vast emphasis on mothers on both sides of the adoption pentad. And yet even on the side of those adopting as well—most horribly in the role they sometimes play as sexual abusers—adopting fathers should not be overlooked as “negligible players” any more than genetic fathers. Here again, if we allow the discourse of adoption to be dominated only by (patriarchally constructed) females, this strikes me as implicitly and suspiciously sexist.

As my original birth certificate makes evident enough, if I did want to grind an axe on someone’s neck, the only one available is my genetic mother (at this point). And just because a “father” is a veritable impossibility to find, this only explains why mother-bashing becomes a first (or at least an easiest) order of the day, but it doesn’t rationalise or justify it.

What kind of sexist assumptions comes with all of this? In so much in life, we permit (or suffer) men to get away with all kinds of shit, which simply provides another reason to pay less or little (or no) attention to the father, absent or not, where adoption (and birth in general) are concerned.

Nonetheless, what weight of sexism does this encode? And how does it bear particularly on the experience of people who were adopted? Why is there ever any sense of betrayal by (or pity towards) the mother for the loss of whatever we do not get to experience from her, but nothing of the same sort of sentiment toward the father?

Endnotes

*An unmarried male in Washington (at the time) could get his name placed on a birth certificate by submitting some quantity of additional paperwork. From what I can tell, this didn’t happen much.

**I don’t think this is merely a “reasonable” or “rational” habit based on the fact that whichever womb a child emerges from is always 100% the mother’s while the identity of the father remains, in theory, potentially never actually establishable; that is, one can attain 100% certainty about the identity of a mother, but never about the father–at least not prior to the advent of genetic testing.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: J.M. Ellis’s (1984)[2] Against Deconstruction

At this point, I have perhaps allowed too much time to pass since finishing my reading of this book to remember the specific points I might have made about it.

A key contribution by it involves its disclosure of the intellectual roots of deconstruction that deconstructionists deny in order to make deconstruction seem fresh and new or revolutionary. Ellis makes clear, for instance, how Derrida (deliberately or ignorantly) misreads Saussure and then his (Derrida’s) epigones parrot that position grievously and garishly incorrectly, &c. In general, Ellis almost literally skins the cat of deconstruction and shows that it comprised (comprises) more a balloon of a cat than a cat.

Two things Ellis does not do, however. His psychologising of deconstructionist practitioners seems a bit beside the point insofar as it “blames” the individual for wanting to impart a sense of momentousness to the practice. He cites, as does Eagleton (1984)[3]—to say nothing of others—how deconstruction arose in a French context where an assertion about the unitary and monolithic character of literature had actual institutional support in the French Academy; a fact that nowhere exists in the US academy, such that deconstruction got received here as simply one more trick up one’s sleeve. But, unlike Eagleton, he less emphasizes the institutional implications of this.

At least I remember it that way. I read both books proximately to one another, but I most of all remember Ellis remarking on the psychology of deconstruction while Eagleton, not surprisingly, focuses more on the institutional history that the stuff occurs within. And neither of them—though Eagleton to a vastly lesser degree—seems to explicitly connect this to the “postmodern turn” in general.[4] But however much I’m misrepresenting Eagleton here, Ellis certainly spends the overwhelming amount of his time, when he addresses himself to the issue, examining the psychological motives of deconstructionists; he analyses its practitioners, rather than the setting of its practice.

In a vague way, to the extent that Ellis stands for a kind of common sense view of literature, meaning, and the like—a position that seems undamaged by such a characterisation, however much he complicates or articulates his position—he likely stands against the trends of postmodernism that permit (or that seem to permit) one to “say anything about anything”. As he notes more than once, this sort of premise means, therefore, the corollary that nothing means anything.

Again, because he does not fully articulate his position but exposes deconstruction in a reductio ad absurdum, only by cherry-picking his book would one arrive at his general position about the function of criticism, what a critic can claim vis-à-vis a text, and the like. A primary complaint of his involves debunking the claim that deconstruction does anything radically new or different and, in this respect, the strongly conservative and reactionary elements in deconstruction bear highlighting, since they make for a very cogent political reason to stand opposed to it.

But all of this points to the wider problem of postmodernism, not in the way that it dismantles any pretence or hope of (critical) consensus about meaning—this makes for a separate and pressing problem—but the way that postmodernism sits so felicitously within the academic culture industry. To put it bluntly: since capitalism requires an endless stream of new commodity for consumption, to the point that (or at the points where) postmodernism licenses the slogan “anything can mean anything”, then the production of endless streams of “academic” (in the most negative sense) work becomes possible. One may (or must) seriously entertain the notion of a study of eggs in Shakespeare’s late sonnets and the like. And, rather than a richness of view upon a single object (however we construe the literary “thing”) that constantly serves to disclose some kernel of the piece (recall: this is how science purports to proceed with that “thing” called the universe), we wind up instead with a mountain of self-cancelling observations that guarantee nothing but future iterations of more of the same.

Another of the things this guarantees, as Ellis makes clear: bad scholarship (or, less politely, a very low bar for academic talent and work). Part of the race to the bottom and the dumbing down of the United States becomes visible here; if one can say anything about anything and no criteria exist to judge such assertions, then academic work takes on a merely two-fold significance: it becomes self-aggrandizing for the author and masturbatory (if not pornographic) for the reader.

But even to say this still sidesteps the institutional support—particularly in the United States—that postmodernism has, where deconstruction offers little more than a style of propagation more than any serious intellectual endeavour, as Ellis makes clear over and over. In other words, notwithstanding Ellis’ own claims about what can and cannot happen in critical studies, his complaint about the illegitimacy of deconstruction does so without objecting to the milieu that supports his sort of criticism. He construes deconstruction as a bogus for of postmodernism, while his own tacit postmodernism (admittedly of a different type) needn’t bear up to scrutiny. And this, particularly as it remains buried within institutional structures.

Specifically, he notes that deconstruction in the United States could hardly offer anything revolutionary. Its opposition to monolithic, monologic meanings seems merely strident and silly in a context where a multiplicity of approaches has long prevailed (for a set of historical reasons not at all necessarily salutary). To put the matter too succinctly, in the US we laud “freedom” as the freedom to do whatever one likes—and if that means you like reading literature as a feminist, a racist, an anti-racist, a reader, a reader-response critic, an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, or whatever else, we have no objection whatsoever so long as the institution can co-opt and politically neutralize that gesture by making it into a commodity. In a different milieu, the pathetic example of the band Rage Against The Machine sold on Sony Records shows exactly how radically the culture industry can co-opt anything.

So deconstruction simply makes more visible what has already always played a key role in (US) academia, and the capitalist world generally, and all the more extensively with the advent of postmodernism. As a strategy, deconstruction demands a style that participates in the sort of destruction of the public sphere that Eagleton traces in his book (The Function of Criticism: From “The Spectator” to Post-Struturalism). Multiple critics have noted the dogmatic insistence on language, for instance. Ellis underscores this as a gambit to keep the actual content of the contested terms away from analysis. I mean: if one proposes a distinction (in language), it typically becomes necessary to protect that distinction against misinterpretation (and thus misuse), but this fact does not mean that deconstructionist’s insistence on their term actually protects such a distinction. In fact, since deconstruction insists that all interpretation is misinterpretation, it becomes incoherent to insist that its own mysterious use of a term could warrant itself while anyone else’s does not. Ellis observes this tactic seems an especially common fault in the United States.

But what he does not emphasise in this involves how this belligerent insistence on terminology analogises with a belligerent insistence on one’s own point of view to the detriment of anyone else’s. If every time you try to contend with my point of view I reply, in some way or another, with, “No, you’re wrong. You don’t (or can’t) understand,” then besides the human offense of this, this represents an attempt at power over that obviously links to how political power forms (itself). In a US context, it dovetails with the “Freedom means I can do whatever I want” ideology, which particularly means I don’t have to pay attention to you (or give you any credence as an existent being) if I don’t want to. And if I have the money (or the power) to do it, then I also get to control the discourse and say so.

One could go on much more about this, but the second thing Ellis eschews involves any criticism of his relentlessly rationalism-as-common-sense presentation. Many times, he exposes the intellectual incoherence of deconstruction, and this makes for welcome exposition. But while this “logical” analysis succeeds in ably exposing the egregious failings of deconstruction, he so overemphasises it—or, perhaps more properly, because he seems to see or imagine no other mode besides this particularly variety of the “rational”—that he often winds up sounding carping. If you have ever read a critique of “rationalism” that laments or lambastes the sterility, pointlessness, or inadequacy of a “purely rational” approach but could not understand why the author seemed to pitch such a tizzy, then Ellis’ book may provide you a test case of such.

Ultimately, this problem rests on the same sort of thing that Ellis so ably explodes on the side of deconstruction. What he (correctly) objects to amounts to an illegitimate substitution, but we find exactly the same kind of illegitimate substitution at work in his insistence that “reason” can establish anything. On a much broader scale, this reprises the perennial (Occidental) philosophical convulsion between “positivism” (of some variety) and “scepticism” that Putnam has characterised as 3,000 years of naïve realism. In entering into and allowing the “play” of this contention, what disappears involves the power and warrant of those allowed to speak, whether the deconstructionists on one side claiming everything means anything or someone like Ellis on the other, claiming that things do, in fact, mean in particular ways, &c.

And they do, because of some consensus, whether we’ve arrived at that consensus through some “fair” process—which Eagleton tentatively characterises[5] in terms of the public sphere in the book I keep citing in this blog—or by a “loaded” (self-perpetuating) process, which we see the work of at the very least when we note the white supremacy of the United States. This doesn’t mean Ellis’ desire for a certain level of work already guarantees undesirable hierarchical processes of power but only that the implementation of it so far, historically speaking, has done so. Deconstruction, similarly, in principal offers an alternative to this sort of entrenched process, but its historical implementation has not worked out justly—most of all, it would seem, because the institutional forces of capitalism corrupt human intention to its own ends.

 


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge.

[2] Ellis, J. M. (1989). Against deconstruction: Princeton University Press Princeton, pp. 1–168.

[3] Eagleton, T. (1984). The Function of Criticism: From “The Spectator” to Post-Struturalism: London: Verso.

[4] I feel like this must mischaracterise Eagleton’s position. Or, perhaps more accurately, it raises the issue in a particular way that ignores in general how Eagleton addresses it in his book. This, in any case, makes for an issue in that reply not this one; so I defer the point.

[5] I say tentatively characterizes, because he at no point suggests that the political reality of the late-1800s permitted literally anyone to participate in the public sphere; rather, the public sphere took as a blinkered premise that, in principal, anyone could participate in the public sphere. What this meant in practice—i.e., who actually did and was permitted to participate in the public sphere—differed markedly from the actual pool of “anyones” in England at the time.

Several for-profit companies now make personalized genetic testing more widely and readily available than in the past, adding the particularly attractive feature of widespread comparison amongst people’s genomes.[1] The usefulness of such genetic testing (for orphans and non-orphans alike) resides almost wholly in the breadth of participation by other people who have been tested, since the hope to locate one’s immediate family depends heavily (maybe entirely) on whether someone in that family has also been tested at the same site as you (but see the note on GEDMatch below). [2] Such testing will most likely provide indirect clues to one’s actual genetic family (second cousins and further back), principally because there are simply more of those to be found, and especially if one’s needed “search base” is transnational.[3] In brief, such testing offers a tool not an answer. It requires work (from the orphan) and often depends upon the kindness of (distantly related) strangers to yield actual “answers”. [4] That is, when such sites “find” that one has 500+ “third or more distantly related cousins” represents a kind of bad faith as an answer to “who am I related to” (or “what is my origin”). I suspect that orphans may hope, but don’t really believe, genetic testing will provide an easy answer, but it seems clear that such a prospect is part of genetic testing’s pitch (to orphans and non-orphans alike). This opportunity for genetic testing tempts people to throw their hat into the “genetic searching” ring, promising some kind of “answer,” which, in fact, will almost certainly only be forthcoming if you do a lot of necessary work to “make” that answer. And if your answer even “exists” within the pool of people searched–again, an important issue for transnational orphans. In general, I would note the much greater social justice in the demand to open previously closed adoption records than to emphasize any “work-around” that genetic testing might offer orphans. Whatever value genetic testing would or does have, to “locate one’s immediate family of origin” seems a red herring, tempting but not the most desirable gesture. So what “good” (or “bad”) is genetic testing for orphans? Endnotes [1] This has occurred, ironically enough, at a time when states like Washington have instituted new rules allowing access to previously closed adoption records. This rule goes into effect tomorrow, 1 July 2014. My petition is already submitted. [2] One of these developments includes GEDMatch, an independently operated genetic comparison database service that takes results from several for-profit (pay) sites, and lets you look even more widely and powerfully into degrees of connectedness with other genomes. As a volunteer-run, free service, keeping things running on their shoestring budget could use our support generally, especially as it adds strength to one’s ability to research paths of relatedness and origin. [3] Like any “Internet” forum where the public gathers, the degree of helpfulness (and thus the degree of usefulness) in genetic testing varies. I’m fortunate to have landed in an anthropological sub-niche, which not only has dissertations and papers written about it, but also generates its own genealogical interest amongst its members. Without this help, short of a crash course in self-education (if I had been able to figure that out without any on-site help), access simply to the genetic information itself remains largely vague and not useable. [4] Rather like the injustice of the child who has to pay for psychotherapy to deal with parental issues, the orphan is asked (or commanded) to bear the cost of this. My sister, who is also adopted, actually persuaded my adopting parents to pay for her psychotherapy, but when it came to hunting down her genetic relatives, she didn’t submit a similar demand for help.

Excusing Environments

28 July 2014

A recent study on adoption and suicide suggests genetic (biological) rather than environmental factors play a dominant role in risks for suicide.

Researchers used Danish adoption data and compared non-biologically related siblings of orphans (children who had been adopted and biologically related siblings that the orphan did not grow up with. Basically what they looked for were co-occurring pairs of suicide or non-suicide. [See the footnote for a descriptive example.][1] The researchers found the strongest association of co-occurring suicides in orphans and their (unknown) biologically related siblings.

The authors include some various caveats and methodological qualifiers you can read about for yourself in the cited study above. A most important factor, not mentioned in the study but confirmed in my correspondence with the lead researcher: none of the children studied were transnational orphans. Specifically, I asked, “Are these adoptees all domestic adoptions (meaning only of Danish, or Caucasian, children or not)?” And the reply was, “We looked only at Danish children, so ethnicity were the same for all of them.”[2]

This study accepts as a matter of course an elevated suicide risk for adopted orphans, but defenders of adoption will be glad to hear genetics play the dominant role. This, because it means that the orphan happened already to be prone to suicide—as the suicide of her or his (unknown) biologically related sibling suggests. An analogous anecdote: after I came out to my father, he eventually “got okay with it” when someone told him homosexuality is genetic: that explanation “let him off the hook”; me being gay “wasn’t his fault”. I’d expect the same stuff from parents of adopted orphans who commit suicide—the tragedy “isn’t their fault”.

One may also imagine, with a shudder, what sort of regimens might get implemented by adopting parents to ensure that the suicide time-bomb of their adoption might not go off. Or maybe opponents of adoption could use this result to frighten would-be adopters: “we don’t really know why, Mister and Missus, but orphans who get adopted are far more likely to kill themselves. Caveat emptor!” We might try to imagine what sort of bizarre “screening” process for orphans would be traffickers might develop to eliminate genetically proto-suicidal orphans.

Disregarding the methodological pitfall that insists a genetic/environmental dichotomy actually has useful explanatory power (I doubt it), what other problematic consequences do you see stemming from this finding? What sort of mechanism do you think explains the finding; for me since all of the children are domestic Danish orphans, to talk about “mere physical separation” as evidence of “environmental differentiation” within Denmark seems dubious. The absence of “non-Danish” orphans strikes me as very significant as well.

Thoughts?

Footnotes

[1] To use me as an example: in my adoptive family, I have one sister who was also adopted and one brother who was not; I also have (presumably) biologically related siblings I don’t know. If I commit suicide and one of my adoptive-family siblings does, that argues positively for environmental factors (the study assumes). If I commit suicide and one of my (unknown) biological siblings does, that argues positively for genetic factors (the study assumes). If I do not commit suicide and one of my adoptive siblings does, this argues against environmental factors but does not therefore automatically support a genetic argument. And, finally, if I do not commit suicide, but my (unknown) biological sibling does, this also argues against the genetic explanation, but does not automatically provide evidence for the environmental explanation.

[2] There remains an ambiguity here. My own question inadvertently permits the conflation of nationality and ethnicity and the researcher’s reply assumes (or states as a fact) that all of the “Danish” children in the study were the same (Scandinavian) ethnicity.

As I plod slowly along on the slow trail of information-gathering to hunt down trails of my possible genetic origins through different genetic testing tools, I sometimes note an obnoxious petitioner’s syndrome that being adopted [1] can engender.

Petitioner’s syndrome points psychologically to having to address a greater power for essential information and structurally to working around the various social constructs that have sprung up to help and hinder individuals who cannot otherwise access that essential information.

In the case of adoption, this essential information points to stuff considered some of the most basic for the non-adopted: where did I come from; who are my relatives; what kind of health issues might I face, &c. The extremity and significance of this information exacerbates petitioner’s syndrome. It can make the adopted more circumspect in approach, sometimes sneaker—or at least they will feel they must be: precisely because so much seems at stake. A refusal to answer a petition likely has very wide-ranging consequences. As a result of this, structural features include predatory lawyers, kinder (but still expensive, sometimes) search angels, and various legalities (opened but still limited information about adoptions) and illegalities (bribery) that circumvent control over access to such information.

Petitioner’s syndrome manifests as when, having already sent off my DNA testing kit, I make up a story to my adoptive father about intending to test simply to provide me a pretext to ask him, once again, for any details he knows about my genetic contributors. As the only source of such information—whether his information is degraded by the passage of years or was ever true in the first place—I have to feel like I’ve created a circumstance for my asking that will elicit the actual best truth from him; I need a pretext to guarantee his honesty. Petitioner’s syndrome manifests structurally in the necessity of resorting to genetic testing in order to obtain information about one’s immediate family in the first place.

And it manifests in  a hybrid structural/psychological way there in that context while rummaging in the genetic testing communities as well. Having a higher than typical (for a Caucasian) contribution from sub-Saharan Africa, my roots, in the United States at least, apparently go back to a tri-racial group in West Virginia (and their descendants). An example shows how this raises the spectre of petitioner’s syndrome. One of the previously best-established genealogists from that population of this population (usually referred to as the Chestnut Ridge People) wrote his most famous book explicitly to deny all traces of African-American heritage in the lineages. (In fact, he adopts the classic dodge, one already well-established amongst the lineages he seeks to document: claiming to be colored, if at all, due to Native American inheritance, not African.) I have already been “warned” by one helpful person that there are people in these lineages who will still maintain this position. I’m fortunate she wasn’t one of them, or that door might have closed.

And so, though I feel honoured (like Pushkin) to have unambiguous and (in evolutionary terms) very recent African-American heritage in my familial past, not everyone I would contact in order to research that past will welcome my efforts. In fact, they might dead-end me. Hence, in my “public profile” (visible to everyone, even those I’m not “sharing” with), I removed the reference to my African-American heritage, reserving it only for my non-public (post-sharing) profile.

The underlying factor of petitioner’s syndrome concerns access to and control of information. The availability of genetic testing allows me to re-contextualise my adoptive parents’ monopoly on birth narratives about me (whether true, false, or indifferent); it permits me to say, “They told you I’m Irish, German, and Welsh. So far, that seems to be true. But I’m also African-American.” Similarly, my petition to the State of Washington for my original birth certificate permits me to say to any that would deny my origins, “No, in fact I am your relative, are we’re part Black.”

Of course, access to adoption records in Washington state (a recent development) points to an increase of social justice precisely because it removes the monopoly the state had on control over that information. It modifies the structural aspects, such as predatory lawyers (or kinder, but expensive) search angels who can bribe or steal their way through the system to uncover this information, because now the path to the information is less blocked.

Any political position about adoption justice, if we must suffer it to exist at all, would therefore seem to demand the elimination of petitioner’s syndrome, psychologically and structurally. One example of this: every adoption must be explicitly and permanently open.

Endnotes

[1] It may have been noted, I refer to “adoptees” as “orphans” now. The orphan is the one who is adopted, remembering that not all orphans get adopted: some get fostered, some die, some commit suicide, some run away, &c. Orphans who must ask others for information about origins will likely wind up in a “petitioner’s syndrome” scenario, but for now at least, I’m proposing that the syndrome arises structurally from adoption.

Having lately resorted to genetic testing to uncover my immediate genetic family, I confront therefore the panoply of folks, mostly not adopted, who are on a similar (but different) quest for their origin.[1]

Compared to whatever conceits are at work in the efforts of committed and serious genealogists, the amateurish, armchair types—the ones who causally claim descent from Napoleon or Cleopatra or Ireland—present a different picture. Most don’t seem to have the patience or wherewithal to do the necessary work to ferret the details out. Genetic testing companies give the impression, “Just do the test and your family tree will spring up before your eyes.” Not so. Consumers instead receive some vague pronouncement like “you’re 89% European” and that’s where it stops.

Notwithstanding the difficulty of making this result mean something more specific, I wonder why genetic testing has emerged particularly as a tool for hooking into a human curiosity about one’s origin, especially in the United States. I think there are several factors.

First, of course, advertising and hype help bolster the market for it. Second, to the extent that “white” people are coming to realize that “white” is not a race and that people of “ethnicities” have all kinds of cool or neat “roots,” this helps to drive home the realization, “Oh, maybe I have roots. Wait. What are my roots.” In a place like England or the Czech Republic, not only is a much vaster amount of genealogical information already readily available (if one “does the work” or simply “consults the book”), one’s “ethnic” descent is already much more likely to be obvious: i.e., plainly I’m English, or Irish, or Scottish—probably a bit muttishly so, but to whatever degree I claim “white” this maps almost immediately onto “Irish” or whatnot. Not so in the United States. Third, then, the history of massive immigration, a subsequent mass history of interbreeding, and a complex (often taboo or denied) history of intermingling with Native Americans, imported slaves, and the various immigrant groups makes it pretty much impossible to make “white” overlap on any precise, non-concatenated ethnic designation. Fourth, this itself makes people in the United States prone to the equation “white” = “American” as a default. And, fifth, once you realize or decide that won’t cut it, finding ones “roots” becomes a tasty prospect. All of this would seem to increase the likelihood of the popularity of genetic testing in the United States.

But then, how does this support the State’s interests?

Significantly, the FDA intervened to prevent one testing company from providing “health reports”. Why doesn’t matter so much as far as this post is concerned, except to note that the State did not also feel any need to prohibit “genealogy hunting” or “origins curiosity” via genetic testing.

This connects to issues for orphans because, in historical legal terms, the “health issue” argument has very often been used successfully to force States to open adoption records. Even now, in different states, a record might be opened for the sake of “health information” although often with the caveat that “identifying information” may be excluded at the parents’ request. In some cases then, the strategic pretext of using “health issues” to uncover “one’s origins” got worked-round by the State and fell short of the “real” goal: answering the question, “who are my parents?”

In the United States, for many people, their citizenship appears in the hyphen, i.e., I’m Irish-American. If “white” = “American” ultimately doesn’t cut it for someone then the addition of a hyphen helps “fix” citizenship. Moreover, realizing I’m Romanian-American, for instance, doesn’t transfer my allegiance to Romania but rather to other Romanian-Americans living in the United States. And this particular urge, at least when it shows up in “white” populations (I’m suggesting), occurs due to the vast and nearly total destruction of sociability that the neoliberal state has been working on for the last 40 years with such dogged insistence. Thus, as “society” disintegrates around people, leaving them more and more wondering at a fundamental level “who am I?” (and in a context where “I’m an American” has for some disintegrated to the point of vacuity), then genetic testing permits offers a “patch” in the addition of a hyphen (a minus sign?), so that White=American becomes Irish-American, or whatnot. The typographical change alone is fascinating.

So for the orphan who is adopted, as one of the rootless persons par excellence, the offer of genetic testing for “origins” has a different flavour, especially in transnational cases. A transnational adoptee from Korea, for instance, would seem more properly an American-Korean than a Korean-American; or perhaps even more simply, a displaced Korean. There was never any white=American equation in the first place for an “origin” from genetic testing to provide its hyphen (or minus sign). But even for a domestic adoption: confirmation that I’m “Welsh” doesn’t make me Welsh-American; it makes me Welsh. And, in fact, that matches exactly the already extent origin story; my adoptive parents told me, “You’re Irish, German, and Welsh,” even though I was born in the United States. My status as an “American” never got asserted by anyone. For me, to be told by genetic testing “You’re Welsh” does, in fact, transfer my national allegiance to Wales, or at least intervenes that move as a step on the way to redefining this whole mess, “I’m Welsh-American (also).”

The adopted orphan has historically been able to demand the State relinquish its monopoly on access to health information, and the State has at times done so, but often without disclosing the birth parents. Whatever factors are in play that make an orphan’s petition “I want to know about my health” persuasive to the State, they must not arise simply by virtue of the request itself, since (1) some orphan petitions get denied and (2) the State directed at least one genetic testing company to stop making health information readily available. However, to the extent that “health information” is simply one strategy and pretext an orphan may resort to in pursuit of the “real” question (“who are my parents?”), we have not seen (that I can tell) any State intervention to prevent that use for genetic testing companies.

More precisely, it’s very unlikely simply to stumble across your parents; they would have had to have tested as well at the same site you did. And sifting through the morass of relatedness to figure out family trees simply from your shared genetic information alone is a daunting task that will dissuade most from the attempt. So we might say the State doesn’t really “care” if we stumble across such people; whatever protection of their privacy the State affects (in allowing “non-identifying information” to be disclosed in the interest of an orphan’s “health questions”), genetic testing simply becomes a most recent means (along with search angels, private investigators, and perhaps sometimes genealogists, depending upon how much you know) for hunting down one’s genetic contributors.

Meanwhile, just as “health details with non-identifying information” evades or dodges the orphans “real” desire about “origins” (“who are my parents”), the vague offer of “origins” that genetic testing makes available (to everyone) similarly evades or dodges that “real” desire as well, if mostly only by accident. Still, it shows, in the way that it transforms White=American into Ethnicity-American, a useful function for the State, by “cementing” allegiance to one’s sense of citizenship (as an Ethnicity-American)—a function not available, by genetic testing, to the orphan. That is, those people who feel rootless in our current neoliberal wasteland may find succour or consolation by the “patch” of a hyphen provided by genetic testing. Such “rooted” individuals will supply more (quantitatively and qualitatively) docile bodies, in Foucault’s sense, vis-à-vis the State.

All of this was inspired by the question whether we participate in the means of our oppression (as orphans) when we petition for information about our origin. In the case of genetic testing, we see that whatever tool it offers, its usefulness will be more through our work and our alliances with other people (indirectly related to us). The “health issue” has been Federally shut down, and the “vague origins” issue cannot serve as a “patch” or “fix” (unless I agree, rather unconvincingly, that I should call myself, for instance, Welsh-American).

To the extent then that genetic testing does not meet our needs as we want them met, to rely upon it makes it always a second-best, at best. Still useful, perhaps, but it’s worth thinking, contrarily, that unlimited open adoptions are more on point, both for cases from the past and as a feature for all future ones.

 


[1] Established lineages, in point of fact, matter only to aristocrats, because it is by them that disputes about succession get determined. This matter touches upon everyday folks where issues of property come into play (succession writ small) so it is no surprise that records like tax rolls become such key documents (along with birth, marriage, and death records) in genealogical research. But I will simply state bluntly that most seriously committed genealogists (of non-famous families) do so in imitation of aristocrats. I oversimplify, of course, but it boils down to something like familial vanity to generate the sort of depth for one’s family tree normally reserved for aristocrats.

Manifold disclosures about the unethical and immoral practices of those trafficking in human children now make clear the systemic, not merely idiosyncratically aberrant, character of those ethical and moral violations. [1]

For instance, my adoptive parents paid for a white baby, but they didn’t get one—as 10.4% of my genetic heritage makes clear in its tracing back to sub-Saharan heritage. Had I been born back in West Virginia among my historical people, I’d’ve been labelled “colored” which would have been as fine for me there as here now.

However, my adoptive parents’ reasons (or worse, their feelings) for seeking adoption matters less in this analysis than the structural existence of the means that manufactured their desire to adopt. And just as the history of international adoption from Korea makes abundantly clear, the “back-end” of that process discloses a veritable shit-storm of contradictions to the “front-end” discourse of family building, love (feeling in general), &c. Whether my Hispanic (i.e., Spanish and Apache) adopted father, who had married a Caucasian woman (herself adopted), explicitly wanted a “white” baby or not, that was what the system claimed to parcel out in general.

The resort to international adoption must have numerous influencing factors,[2] but if we stay with an eye on the domestic market, then clearly “babies who can pass as white” will be a desirable, though maybe not plentiful, part of that market. From a student’s thesis about the Chestnut Ridge people (“my people”) that I read recently, the author carefully allowed the social construct of race (rather than any genetic basis) to direct her analysis. In other words, people who outside of their local, historical context would not have been called “colored” were labelled as such. The author examines the tax rolls and shows how tax roll personnel would actually change the racial designation of people over the years; people previously “white” would become some category of “colored” (and then might, in the future, return to “white” again). These changes were, in part, due to increasing paranoia by Caucasians about race; so much so that such “colored” people by the 1930s had a whole repertoire of denials (specifically about African origins), even though their own ancestors had unabashedly and openly practiced interracial life-making.

Poverty—all the more so when imposed systematically—manufactures orphans, and the area my people come from continues to be poor; in West Virginia, one county away from one of the loci of the Chestnut Ridge people, is the poorest county in that second poorest state in the national (second only to Mississippi). Thus, it comprises structurally a fertile ground out of which would be generated adoptable babies, i.e., apparently white ones. This will become even truer for those who left the area. As the thesis author notes, people unmistakably white in appearance were labelled “colored” (by tax assessors) simply by association, by the historically known cohabitations and associations that had begotten various “white” individuals.

Since the most famous genealogist of this group from that group set out to rigorously expunge from his lineage’s history all trace of African origin, his relocation to Spokane, Washington—I mean, his birth amongst descendants who had previously moved away from an area where their heritage was well-known—suggests that relocation for the sake of being “mistaken” for white might well have been a motive.[3] Structural features or forces like this help, then, to create (one of the many pools) of “acceptably white” babies that might supply the adoption industry domestically.

This shows how my adoptive father got defrauded and thus the fraudulence of the system generally all over again (if such proof is necessary). I do not propose this “revolutionizes” any understanding of systemic adoption, but rather fills in yet another niche (that I or we might have guessed existed, even evidence for it had not surfaced yet). Structurally, I think this discloses something that genetic testing is “good” for for orphans. Personally, it means that my awkwardness (as a “white guy participating here”) was misplaced; I might have suspected all along.[4]

Endnotes

[1] Once one assumes a demand exists, then no means to supply that demand gets taken off the table—only whether or not certain means remain publicly acknowledged or not. But even here, the distinction between heinously outright theft, dispossession, coercion, lying, or mere purchase of infants (i.e., the deliberately literal creation of orphans) by “individuals” contrasts with the “accidental creation” of orphans by structural features (like war, economically predatory international trade agreements, globalization, &c) only in degree. It echoes the observation: kill two people, you’re a murderer; kill 200,000, that’s foreign policy. And while it can be difficult to detect the “structural” element at work in the “individual” behaviour of the serial murderer or child-trafficker, this therefore requires simply more attention to those structural features, not any easier or lazier resort to “individual” explanations. So long as we talk about what individuals do, we implicitly argue that the fault lies with the practitioners of the structure, not the structure itself.

[2] I think it would be very interesting to study how Korean (or perhaps Asian) babies came to be a valid market product. I recently read a dissertation that traced the origin and rise of “fertility reduction programs” (aka “family planning), which found their first large-scale experimentation and implementation in Taiwan in 1963. While reading it, resonances between the “problem of fertility” and adoption (from Korea) tantalized me.

[3] I’m not blaming anyone for that motive, but the genealogist’s efforts to falsify his family history suggests perhaps he’d’ve done better to abandon the project.

[4] And happily something only ever in my head. No one ever made me feel unwelcome.

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